The author wore her orange shirt to the stakeout weekend that never took place.
Sarah Paik

It’s 5:44 a.m. at the airport I’ve just landed in on the East Coast and I’m wearing what might be the world’s worst stakeout shirt. It’s pretty but also orange. It’s a good thing that there is a 2-hour layover. There’s enough time to change. The bad news is that it’s 2:44 a.m. California time and I’m delirious and about to embark on convincing someone at an RV campsite that I need to tour the grounds to see if my friend’s soon-to-be-ex-husband is hosting another woman when he’s supposed to be watching their son. What the hell?

After a year and a half of a global pandemic, who’s to say what crosses the threshold of unhinged? Lockdowns, driving by birthday parties, people feeling unsafe and angry all the time have made “nutty” the new norm. Even so, the caper still feels monumental. Sometimes you jump without any idea of where you’ll land because a friend asks for help. Reason takes a back seat to friendship and mighty forces will come to your aid ― or they won’t.

A few days before, one my closest friends informed me that she was going through a divorce. Our friendship is so strong that we were able to immediately look at airfares and fly together. However, my friend texted me the day before to request that I change to an earlier flight so she could take a photo and stakeout the vehicle of his girlfriend. She didn’t have definitive proof of an affair, but she had a hunch.

I was a bridesmaid at this friend’s wedding, but the entirety of their marriage took place thousands of miles and many states away from where I live in Los Angeles. I’d seen him only a few times in person, so the odds were decent that he wouldn’t recognize me from a distance if he were to see me.

When I got back to the airport, my decision was not made to alter. My orange shirt was the first thing I chose because it reminded of me. That PTA mom ― you know, the one who packs the really good lunches and volunteers for everything. I held fast to my first instinct that the shirt helped support our cover story, the one where I’m just there scoping out potential sites for a large family reunion. I reminded myself that we weren’t going to be in a parked van reaching for night-vision binoculars.

Unfortunately, the stakeout did not go as planned. His rig was in front of us before we could get off the highway and drive to the office. The rig was clearly visible from the highway. There were also no vehicles parked directly next to it. People would have appreciated that the RV was located on the outer perimeter of the campsites. This meant no need for undercover tours. And since no other woman’s car was present, we didn’t have to pull over to the shoulder of a highway (albeit a single-lane one) to take pictures. However, my adrenaline and delirium levels spiked and I was disappointed.

“The stakeout was a bust but my weekend in the Deep South was a call to arms. Instead of gotcha photos of an affair, we ate carbs, remembered how to chain-smoke and grew more formidable as the night bled into morning.”

My friend and I would be proud to have captured evidence of our affair. When we both started working for Vail Daily the same day, it was over twenty years ago that our hearts met. By preying upon our insecurities, the news editor tried to extract more industry from both of us. My friend was also told by him that I had just finished an internship with The New York Times. He was honest and assured me that it was not a problem to start out along someone like him. His tactics held sway until the end of day one when I popped my head over our cubicle divider and asked if she wanted to go for happy hour at Paddy’s across the street.

Although the stakeout failed, my weekend in Deep South was inspiring. Instead of taking photos of an affair, she ate carbs, recollected how to chain smoke, and became more powerful as the evening progressed. I introduced her to the glories of a jalapeño margarita and she showed me it’s possible not to flinch when a once-cherished partner becomes a ruthless stranger.

Many people describe true friendship as having your own family. I say it’s more like choosing your own army. You can build friendships that will make you more brave, smarter, and stronger. Alone, it’s easier to be disheartened by an opponent who seeks advantage by unearthing new lows. Fight dirty is a win-win strategy. I can’t sit next to her in mediation. What I can do, however, is to remind her of who she really is and strengthen her defenses. In doing this, I also clear out some of the toxic toxins in my life.

My head was in a complete mess before I strapped on for cross-country flights. COVID had put the death knell on my book club, my monthly writing group, my political postcard writing group and local girls’ nights out that involved more than two individuals. Next, the delta variant hit the pause key on all attempts to revive them. Yes. It is laughably small to have COVID potatoes when compared with the sufferings many others have had over the last 20 months.

But sometimes it’s the small potatoes that get you. Darkness is darkness when you’re engulfed in it. And if you don’t get through it, it doesn’t matter how frivolous the originating source may be. The psychic support I received from people sharing a worldview or just wanting to have a good time was something that deeply missed. I’m sure the feeling is common enough. However, the damage was done when I mental self-flagellated about how much space this yearning took up inside my head.

This was a very cruel and pointless punishment. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards nailed it: You can’t always get what you want but if you try sometimes, well, you might find, you get what you need. I’m lucky enough to claim some of the planet’s most remarkable people as friends. It took a bleary flight and a shameless soon-to-be-ex-husband to see I wasn’t even close to appreciating how much that mattered.

Sarah Paik, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and editor for Best of Korea is Sarah Paik. Her writings have appeared in The Aspen Times Vail Daily, The New York Times, and The New York Times. She’s a PTA member but only packs slightly more than average meals.

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